For Peru’s In­di­ans, Law­suit Against Big Oil Re­flects a New Era

Out­siders and High-Tech Tools Help Doc­u­ment Firms’ Im­pact

The Washington Post - - World News - By Kelly Hearn

NUEVO JERUSALEM, Peru — Tomás May­nas Car­i­jano strolled through his tiny jun­gle farm, pinch­ing leaves, shak­ing his head. The rain for­est spread lushly in all di­rec­tions — cov­er­ing what oil maps call Block 1AB.

“Like the trunk of that pa­paya, the cas­sava and ba­nanas are also dy­ing,” said the spir­i­tual leader of this re­mote Achuar In­dian set­tle­ment in Peru’s north­ern Ama­zon re­gion. “Be­fore Oxy came, the fruits and the plants grew well.”

Oxy is Oc­ci­den­tal Pe­tro­leum, the Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany that pulled a for­tune from this rain for­est from 1972 to 2000. It is also the com­pany that May­nas and other Achuar lead­ers now blame for wreak­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal havoc — and leav­ing many of the peo­ple here ill. Last spring, U.S. lawyers rep­re­sent­ing May­nas and 24 other in­dige­nous Peru­vians sued Oc­ci­den­tal in a Los An­ge­les court, al­leg­ing that, among other of­fenses, the firm vi­o­lated in­dus­try stan­dards and Peru­vian law by dump­ing toxic waste­water di­rectly into rivers and streams. The com­pany de­nies li­a­bil­ity in the case. For in­dige­nous groups, the Oc­ci­den­tal law­suit is em­blem­atic of a new era. The Ama­zon re­gion was once even more iso­lated than it is to­day, its peo­ple largely cut off from en­vi­ron­men­tal de­fend­ers in Wash­ing­ton and other world cap­i­tals who might have pro­tected their in­ter­ests. Now, In­di­ans have gained ac­cess to tools that level the play­ing field — from multi­na­tional law­suits to map­ping tech­nolo­gies such as Google Earth.

Oil com­pa­nies that once traded money and de­vel­op­ment for In­di­ans’ bless­ings are in­creas­ingly find­ing out­siders get­ting in­volved. “His­tory has shown that oil com­pa­nies will cut cor­ners if some­one isn’t watch­ing,” said Gre­gor MacLen­nan of Shi­nai, an in­ter­na­tion­ally funded civic group in Peru. “We try to get to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties first to help them make in­formed de­ci­sions about oil com­pa­nies and the changes they bring.”

Lured by global en­ergy prices, Peru is plac­ing record bets on Ama­zon en­ergy lodes: Last year the coun­try’s con­ces­sions agency, Peru­Petro, signed a record 24 hy­dro­car­bon con­tracts with in­ter­na­tional oil com­pa­nies. EarthRight­s In­ter­na­tional, a non­profit group that is help­ing rep­re­sent the plain­tiffs in the Achuar case, says half of Peru’s bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse Ama­zon re­gion has been added to oil maps in the last three years.

Oc­ci­den­tal pumped 26 per­cent of Peru’s his­toric oil pro­duc­tion from Block 1AB be­fore sell­ing the de­clin­ing field to Ar­gentina’s Plus­petrol in 2000. “We are aware of no cred­i­ble data of neg­a­tive com­mu­nity health im­pacts re­sult­ing from Oc­ci­den­tal’s op­er­a­tions in Peru,” Richard Kline, a com­pany spokesman, said in an e-mail state­ment.

Kline said that Oc­ci­den­tal has not had op­er­a­tions in Block 1AB in nearly a decade and that Plus­petrol has as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. Oc­ci­den­tal made “ex­ten­sive ef­forts” to work with com­mu­nity groups and has a “long­stand­ing com­mit­ment and pol­icy to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment and the health and safety of peo­ple,” he said.

The Cal­i­for­nia-based group Ama­zon Watch has joined the suit as a plain­tiff, and the case is now inch­ing through U.S. courts. In a fed­eral hear­ing sched­uled for Feb. 11, com­pany lawyers will ask a judge to send the case to Peru, where In­di­ans say cor­rup­tion and a case back­log will hurt their chance of win­ning.

Learn­ing Their Rights

The prim­i­tive trum­pet — a hol­lowed cow’s horn — brayed over this gritty river com­mu­nity at sun­down. Res­i­dents of Nuevo Jerusalem, the Achuar set­tle­ment on the Ma­cusari River, trudged up a path, tot­ing shot- guns and fish­ing nets. Some stepped down from palm huts, walk­ing to the meet­ing in twos and threes. Soon, Lily La Torre was on stage.

“I’ve come to give you news of the Oxy suit,” said La Torre, a Peru­vian lawyer and ac­tivist work­ing with May­nas’s le­gal team. Bare­foot women in dirty skirts cir­cled the room, serv­ing bowls of homemade cas­sava beer.

La Torre dis­tilled le­gal strate­gies into sim­ple terms. She told vil­lagers that the case had been moved to the fed­eral level in the United States. “Now they are try­ing to move the law­suit to Peru,” she said in Span­ish, paus­ing for an Achuar in­ter­preter. “But we must pray that the suit stays in the U.S. We know it can­not sur­vive in Peru.”

Later, as peo­ple ap­proached her with ques­tions, a man who was look­ing on said in bro­ken Span­ish: “When Oxy came, we did not know our rights. Now we do.”

In ad­di­tion to al­leg­ing that Oc­ci­den­tal il­le­gally dumped toxic waste­water, the Achuar suit ac­cuses the com­pany of gen­er­at­ing acid rain with gas flares, fail­ing to warn In­di­ans of health dan­gers and im­prop­erly stor­ing chem­i­cal wastes in un­lined pits.

The “ir­re­spon­si­ble, reck­less, im­moral and il­le­gal prac­tices” left May­nas and his peo­ple with poi­soned blood, pol­luted streams and empty hunt­ing grounds, the suit says. Plain­tiffs want dam­ages, declara­tory and in­junc­tive re­lief, resti­tu­tion and dis­gorge­ment of prof­its. One wo­man is su­ing on be­half of her child, whose death she al­leges is re­lated to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion.

Last spring, be­fore the Achuar case was filed, a team of health ex­perts, lawyers and sci­en­tists funded by EarthRight­s In­ter­na­tional said in a re­port that the wells, pipe­lines and other in­fra­struc­ture built here by Oc­ci­den­tal had di­rectly caused wa­ter and soil con­tam­i­na­tion, which in turn has caused health prob­lems for many lo­cal peo­ple in Block 1AB.

Kline said the re­port con­tained “in­flam­ma­tory mis­state­ments, un­founded al­le­ga­tions and un­sup­ported con­clu­sions” and failed to pro­vide ba­sic in­for­ma­tion that would help de­ter­mine whether oil op­er­a­tions con­trib­uted to the al­leged en­vi­ron­men­tal and health prob­lems. “None­the­less . . . we will eval­u­ate the claims and the law­suit and re­spond ac­cord­ingly,” he said.

A Tech­no­log­i­cal As­sist

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups are go­ing be­yond word of mouth and law­suits to as­sist in­dige­nous groups.

One day last fall, Gue­vara Sandi Chimb­o­ras was bounc­ing a pickup truck along a re­mote oil road near the Achuar com­mu­nity of Jose Olaya. Car­ry­ing a dig­i­tal cam­era, notepad and a Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem trans­ceiver do­nated by the civic group Shi­nai, Sandi walked through a grassy field to a pool of stag­nant wa­ter. With a stick, he dug up a clump of glis­ten­ing, pun­gent mud, and sniffed.

“The com­pa­nies say th­ese sites are clean,” he said. “They won’t be­lieve us with­out doc­u­mented pho­tos. With words, they don’t be­lieve us.”

There are no mass me­dia in the rain for­est. But Shi­nai has trans­lated a U.S.-made doc­u­men­tary about the Achuar’s prob­lems into Machigueng­a, the lan­guage spo­ken by In­di­ans in south­east­ern Peru, where a U.S.backed nat­u­ral gas project is un­der­way. The group uses DVD play­ers pow­ered by so­lar pan­els and gen­er­a­tors to show the film to In­di­ans con­sid­er­ing agree­ments with oil com­pa­nies.

Mean­while, Google Earth is prov­ing to be an om­ni­scient eye. Peter Kostishack, a Colorado-based rights ac­tivist, uses the ap­pli­ca­tion to record co­or­di­nates and satel­lite images of rain for­est ero­sion and post them on his blog. With help from the U.S.-based Ama­zon Con­ser­va­tion Team, In­di­ans in Brazil’s Ama­zon Basin have used Google Earth im­agery to spot river dis­col­oration caused by il­le­gal min­ing op­er­a­tions.

“Many times a com­pany claims na­tives don’t have the tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to un­der­stand that it is do­ing the best it can, when in fact it may be do­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble,” said Bill Pow­ers, chief en­gi­neer of E-Tech In­ter­na­tional, a non­profit en­gi­neer­ing firm based in Cal­i­for­nia that pro­vides In­di­ans with tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise.

“We make it a bat­tle of equals, at least in the knowl­edge area,” he said. “For­eign Ex­change,” a weekly pub­lic broad­cast­ing pro­gram, will air a seg­ment about the Achuar and Block 1AB be­gin­ning this week. For lo­cal list­ing times, go to http://for­eignex­change.tv.

BY DUN­CAN MCLEAN — LONE OUT­POST INC.

Some mem­bers of the Peru­vian In­dian com­mu­nity of An­tio­quia, which prac­tices slash-and-burn cul­ti­va­tion, are among those su­ing Cal­i­for­nia-based Oc­ci­den­tal Pe­tro­leum.

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